Christmas Shopping for a gamer should be easy…

With the Christmas season apon us, I thought it an appropriate time to talk about Christmas gifts suitable for tabletop gamers, some obvious, and some not-so-obvious. My family often complain that I’m hard to shop for; I disagree, and this list is the reason why…

Rulebooks

The most obvious thing to give another player is a rulebook from their favorite game, or from a game that you think they might like to play. This is especially true if they are on a financially-constrained budget and you know they can’t afford to buy these books for themselves. If you aren’t a gamer yourself, this may require the covert assistance of someone they game with.

Gaming Paraphernalia

Gaming Paraphernalia comes in many varieties and some of it makes for good gifts – while some of it doesn’t. I’m going to hit a couple of high points:

Dice

Most players are very well equipped with dice. That means that if you are to give something of this sort, it needs to be something exotic. There are stores out there that specialize in dice – explore them, with advice from other gamers if necessary. I once gave one of my players a d3, a d5, a d7, a d14, and a d16 for Christmas.

But there is a downside to this choice of gift: they will have limited utility (otherwise they would have reached common circulation long since). Of those dice mentioned above, only the d7 saw even occasional use (for random assignment of the day of the week). Now a d24 and a d60 – those would have seen a LOT of use for random generation of the time-of-day.

Character Sheets

These might seem like a good gift, but they don’t tend to go over all that well, for a variety of reasons. For one, they look relatively cheap in an age where photocopiers are commonplace; for another, their utility may be limited or even non-existent; and for a third, the player will almost certainly have something worked out – some system or character sheet – that they already use. One of my players likes to use an A4 hardcover notebook for each character, so that he has room in the book for notes, etc, for example. So avoid these.

Character Portraits

I’ve been commissioned to produce character portraits for other gamers a couple of times. Properly framed, and especially if the character is a favorite of the player, these make an excellent gift. Leave the artist plenty of lead time, though – commission at least 3 months before the gift is to be handed out – and be sure to work with them on the question of mounting and framing. And expect to pay a fair price – a good portrait may take 20 hours or more to create, and at $20 an hour (a fairly minimal rate for this sort of thing) that runs you to $400. The better the artist, the more lead time and money will be needed – but the more satisfying the end result is likely to be. WORK those twitter and facebook connections!

Miniatures & Figure Sets

If you give someone miniatures, make sure they are relevant – and properly painted by someone who knows what they are doing. This can cost as much as a character portrait.

Figure Sets that are genre-relevant can be a suitable alternative to give a GM. We use a lot of Cardboard Heroes and Marvel Heroclix for figures in the Zenith-3 game (with the occasional Fantasy figure for something exotic). However, once the GM has enough for his needs, these go over like a lead balloon – so definitely consult others in the gaming group first.

Other

There are a few items that count as “Other” Gaming paraphernalia. Ian Gray has provided our group with a set of magnetic initiative trackers – use a whiteboard marker to label one with the character’s name, and you can move them around as necessary, then slide them to one side when they have acted – or to the other if they are holding an action, or casting a spell, or otherwise haven’t completed their action yet. The rule of thumb for these and similar gaming bits is that they generally make excellent gifts – if the group doesn’t have them.

Dice Bags and shoulder bags and the like also fall into this category, but these can be chancy as gifts – the recipient often has enough of them already.

Fiction

Fiction seems like another obvious choice – but you quickly run into the problem of personal taste. Sometimes you’ll hit a winner, and sometimes not. Another caveat is being sure of what the intended recipient already has.

If it’s a new book by their favorite author, you’re on relatively safe ground. If it’s a new anthology within a genre they like, you’re probably reasonably OK as well. Beyond those two circumstances, things get a little trickier.

Non-Fiction

It’s often easier and safer to buy a work of non-fiction. Personal tastes tend to be less of a factor, and there are always new books being published in virtually every field – and since gaming covers such a wide terrain, it’s impossible to keep up with it all.

I’ve broken this category down into no less than 19 sub-items (and I’m sure I’ve left something out!) Some of these may require some detective work.

Psychology & Characterization

We all, as players, want to get inside our character’s heads. Books on characterization help us do that, so anything new on that subject is always a good gift for a gamer. To a lesser extent, the same is true of books from the related field of Psychology.

How-to-write

Most gamers tend to write – or, at the very least, to fictionalize. We write character backgrounds, and adventures, and magic items, and campaign histories, and so on and on almost endlessly. As a group, we are probably the most literate subculture, excluding those who make a living from reading or writing. Anything that makes our writing better, or more accessible, or easier, is definitely suitable as a gift.

World Almanacs

For players or GMs of any campaign set in a modern era, a World Almanac is an especially good gift. I have three – 1996, 1998, and 2012 – and use them all the time. Also the CIA world factbook. The occasional copy of the Guinness Book Of World Records probably fits somewhere in or around this category as well.

Cartography & Atlases

One of the most entertaining books that I read this year was about how the US states got their shapes. I have 5 atlases that I use constantly, including one from the 1970s and another from the 1950s. I’d love to add one for pre-WWII to the collection for use with the Pulp campaign.

The thing with atlases is that they all present the same basic information to different levels of detail and clarity. One of my atlases gives almost no information about smaller settlements, nothing on roads, etc. But it’s excellent about mineral deposits and land use and vegetation. Another is very detailed – so much so that it can be hard to find what you are looking for. And another is in between these two extremes. I’ll frequently generate maps for my modern-day games using Google Maps and screen captures – but we’ll always use an atlas to decide where we want to be looking.

Writer’s Guides

As a GM, we’re always looking to bring the game era to life around the players. As players, we want to make our characters feel authentic. Writer’s guides help us do both. If only they were better indexed (sigh).

Science

The single best, most readable, most comprehensive compendium of scientific history and knowledge that I have ever read is Asimov’s New Guide To Science. It was published and last updated in 1984 – making it almost 30 years out of date! Nevertheless, as a starting point for understanding more recent developments and discoveries, as a foundation, it is excellent and irreplaceable. I have a number of other books on science in my collection – but science never stands still. Books on the subject – especially those targeted at a non-specialist market – are therefore always good gifts for anyone who games in the modern or sci-fi genres.

Histories

Games always happen in some period of history (except for the sci-fi genre). Books on history are therefore a good choice of gift for a gamer, especially those devoted to a period related to the one they game in. Perhaps the second most interesting book I’ve read this year was about the confrontation between FDR and the US Supreme Court – and while nothing in its contents has yet impacted on the Pulp Campaign, sooner or later it will.

Books on mythology

For a fantasy gamer, and a superhero gamer, these are good choices, for obvious reasons.

Travel Guides

Remember what I said about Writer’s Guides? Travel Guides can be just as useful, especially ones that contain more than a list of hotels and hotel reviews. The more literate the description of a place, the more useful these are. It’s the next best thing to going there in person – something that is often beyond the means of most gamers.

Political Analyses

Ahh, Politics. EVERY campaign has politics in it. The more you understand about politics and political shenanigans, the better. Books about politics are always good gifts – provided they are reasonably unbiased.

Sociology

If every society has politics, it can only be helpful to understand more about that society. So books on sociology – again, aimed at the general public – are also useful ideas for gifts.

Books on language

These fall into two sub-sub-categories. Books about English should really be lumped into the How-to-write category; that leaves books on other languages. These can be anything from translation dictionaries (though these days the free translators on the internet are a reasonable substitute) through to full courses in speaking an appropriate language, through to the most useful and hard-to-find books of all: how the language impacted on and reflects the society in question. Again, every culture communicates amongst its constituents – the more you know about the limits and impacts of the modes of communication used, the better you can play in or GM that culture. And lessons learned about, say, ancient Rome can always be transferred to some other fantasy or sci-fi Kingdom or Realm.

Books About Names

Baby books that offer the meaning of names are a dime-a-dozen. Once you have one, you are pretty much set.

Or are you? How about one that divides its content by nation, and by era? What were the most common names of 14th century Portugal? What can a surname tell about a family background? How are places named? The utility of such books depends on their structure. Read the reviews carefully and you can uncover a hidden gem or two.

Books About Things

These tend to be genre-specific, but there’s a wealth of choice within each genre. For sci-fi gamers, a book on spaceships. Or planets. For pulp gamers, a book on classic cars, or early aviation. For fantasy gamers, a book on armor, or weapons, or castles. For the modern-day gamer, consider how-it-works books.

Books about Genre

There are always books about Genre. Books about science fiction for the sci-fi gamer. Books about fantasy for the fantasy gamer. Books about swashbuckling for the swashbuckler. Books about comics for the superhero gamer. You get the idea! The tricks here are making sure you get something the intended recipient doesn’t already have, and making sure you get the genre right – there’s a big difference between modern sci-fi and space opera, for example.

For-Dummies Books (and similar) on crafts and skills their characters possess but the player does not

This is definitely something a lot of people don’t think of. Give a gamer a copy of the boy scout manual, or a survivalist guide, or a primer on how to paint. What you are really giving them is a reference book for their character. Just make sure to include the inscription for use with (character name) on the card, or they will never know why they’ve got a book on fishing.

This is definitely an option that few people think of, and an endless source of new gift ideas. It requires a consultation of the player’s peers, however.

References & TV/Movie Guides

These tend to be fairly obvious. Give a sci-fi player a book on the 100 best sci-fi movies, or the making of Stargate, or whatever. These should really be in the “Books about genre” category, but I wanted to single them out in order to sound a word of warning: if the recipient is not a fan of the specific series, your gift will go over like a lead balloon – and if they are a fan, they may well already have the item in question. So this sub-category is very definitely a double-edged sword of Damocles.

Books on software that they use

I don’t use Photoshop very much – I’m more a CorelPaint person (not that they’ve made that particular software for years). I have Photoshop, I just don’t use it much. I have collected a number of books on how to use this software – and would have been happy to receive them as gifts before I bought them.

This option requires more detective work than most, but it can pay off big-time if you get it right.

Gift Certificates

And, if your imagination – or your ability to do the detective work – fails you, there is always the rather flavorless and unimaginative option of a gift certificate for a bookstore. Which at least ensures that the recipient will get something that they want.

DVDs

Another popular gift idea, but one that is a little more fraught with peril of duplication than books.

Movies & TV

The key to this type of gift is choosing something that the recipient both wants and doesn’t have – and that can be a tricky proposition. The more they like a series or a movie, the more likely they are to already have a copy. Conversely, the fact that they don’t have it can mean that they don’t want it.

Science Documentary

Safer ground can often be found in the area of documentaries. I’ve singled out two specific types, of which Science Documentaries are the first. But if you know someone is into documentaries, these can quickly encounter the same problems as those listed for generic Movies & TV DVDs.

Historical Documentary

Documentaries about history, especially history relevant to the genre of gaming, are another choice worth keeping in mind. I’m a big fan of the BBC series, Time Team, for example, but until recently, there have been very few DVDs for the series. Everything that was said above about Genre-related Books applies here.

CDs

Soundtracks and Special Effects CDs can be an unusual choice – but an interesting and different one – where the intended recipient is a GM.

Storage containers

Gamers always need more space to put things. Bookshelves, storage cubes, DVD/CD cases – they can all make excellent choices for gifts.

Stationery

Another category few people seem to think of, but one in which there are a couple of quality choices available.

Parchment & Other fancy papers

Most people have a printer of some sort for their computers. These can render something that looks vaguely like parchment as a background to text. But have you ever considered the possibility of giving a GM a number of pages of ‘simulated’ parchment cut to an appropriate size for their printer to use for maps and game props? Silver-colored heavy paper is often used for Weddings and the like – but can make a wonderful game prop for anything sci-fi or superhero. Drop by your local printer and ask about fancy papers…

Whiteboards, overhead projectors

If they don’t have one, consider one of these options for a GM. The utility should be obvious.

Software

Software as a gift seems to be declining in popularity. It’s always hard because it needs to run under the right operating system AND be useful to the player/GM – and, at the end of the day, there might not be anything much to show for it. This gift these days is often relatively intangible.

Gaming Software

There are, nevertheless, examples of gaming software out there. If you can find the right one, it can be useful. A star atlas for the sci-fi player, for example.

Character Generators

GMs love character generators and similar tools that take the pain and effort out of generating encounters. If the results are editable and customizable, so much the better. But giving a fantasy gamer a Call-Of-Cthulhu character generator won’t get you far – consult the other gamers with whom the recipient plays.

Art Software and Add-ons

Some people will love this as a gift, others… let’s just say, not so much. There are all sorts of plugins for art software, some of them quite pricey, others quite affordable or even free. Compatibility and making sure the art software the recipient has can run the add-on can be the stumbling blocks – but you can get around that if you include compatible software and maybe a novice’s user-guide as part of the bundle.

Text Editors

Have I already mentioned that gamers write – a lot? Oh, Good. Then the gift of the latest version of the software they use – provided it will run on their computer – should be an obvious choice, but one that people never seem to think of.

Fonts & Clipart

This one’s a little more technical. There are some excellent free fonts out there – and there are a lot of even-better not-for-free fonts. At the cheap end, giving someone a cheap font collection (or a clipart collection) can be a great choice for a bargain-basement gift. At the more expert end, look for a font seller online and a gift certificate, or buy a commercial font / clipart collection.

Mapping Software

A perennial favorite software choice for gamers, there are some excellent choices out there – and some not-so-great ones. Some are free, some are not. Again, some detective work (especially using twitter or other social media) can reap big dividends.

Computer Games

This is the no-brainer gift in the software category – provided you buy for the right operating system and hardware. Suddenly, the usual detective work and due diligence are back in vogue.

T-Shirts

A gift of a t-shirt is as much work as you want to make it. The more effort you put into matching the shirt with the recipient’s tastes, the better recieved it will be. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, a T-shirt is just something that you wear, and these are given as gifts way more often by the unimaginative than perhaps they should be.

Geekdom

There are always geeky items, which most gamers will love. A phone shaped like a Dalek? – why not? A cake mould shaped like the Millennium Falcon? – why not?

Gift-giving should be about more than a commercial transaction in which you buy something for someone else. It should be symbolic of affection and the best aspects of a relationship between giver and recipient. The more imagination and thought and care that goes into the selection of an appropriate gift, the more likely you are to hit a winner – the more you are saying to the recipient with your gift, “I value you enough to have put some effort into this.” Of course, allowances for circumstances should always be made – but there are bargains enough out there that thought and diligence will usually get you something appropriate and within your price range; it’s just a question of looking hard enough and being creative enough with your choices.

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